Early Star, Paideia Has Had Its Ups and Downs

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DURHAM COUNTY, N.C.--Davishia Jones seems confused. The subject of discussion in the Socratic seminar in her class at Sherwood Githens Middle School is President Kennedy's inaugural address and she does not understand why a classmate has said the speech addresses "family values.''

"What do you mean by family values?'' the 8th grader asks a little cautiously.

"Family values are things that are important to a family,'' the classmate answers. "Some parents think it's important for a family to spend time together.''

"Where in the text does it say family values?'' someone else interjects.

The classmate looks at the speech and discovers her error. She misinterpreted a passage about the nation's commitment to human rights "at home and abroad'' as referring to family values.

Davishia's and her classmates' skill at ferreting out the erroneous information in their classroom discussion comes in part from having spent a lot of time in exchanges like this one. Every Wednesday morning, all 1,100 students at the school put aside their textbooks and engage in 70 minutes of Socratic dialogue with teachers or other adults at the school.

The discussions are a focal point of Githens's effort to transform itself into a national model for the principles embodied in The Paideia Proposal, a 1982 call for school reform.

The proposal, crafted by the philosopher Mortimer J. Adler and 21 educators, resurrected the ideal of the Socratic seminar and called for a rigorous academic core curriculum for all students, regardless of ability level.

Preceding the landmark A Nation at Risk education-reform report by about six months, the slim 84-page manifesto was a best-selling item in some bookstores at the time. It was discussed on television talk shows and was featured in national news magazines.

The decade since, however, has been somewhat rockier for the Paideia crusade. Mr. Adler, now 90 years old, has stepped back from the Paideia efforts in order to devote more time to philosophy. At least two national groups and organizations lay claim to the Paideia mantle. And, although hundreds of schools nationwide now call themselves Paideia schools, Mr. Adler claims no one completely embodies the proposal.

The ideas contained in the Paideia proposal, however, have become part of the national conversation about school reform. And, at Githens and in handfuls of schools like it across the country, those ideas are very much alive.

"I think,'' said Diane S. Ravitch, an education historian and a former U.S. assistant secretary of education, "it may be one of the central animating ideas of school reform where the idea itself may survive the name.''

'Voice of Optimism'

Paideia is a Greek word meaning "the upbringing of a child.''

A central tenet of the proposal is the belief that, in the words of the educator Robert Maynard Hutchins, "the best education for the best is the best education for all.''

That means an education system in which no students are tracked according to academic ability and in which all are given the kind of rigorous academic curriculum found in many private schools. Elective courses, such as vocational education or home economics, are eliminated. Grading systems that compare a student's achievement with that of his classmates are discouraged.

"It was a voice of democratic optimism uttered at a time when everybody was gnashing their teeth over how children couldn't learn anything,'' said Theodore R. Sizer, a member of the original Paideia group and the chairman of the Coalition of Essential Schools, a national network of reform-minded educators.

The Paideia group advocated three "columns,'' or modes, of teaching and learning.

The first column is traditional didactic teaching. The second is "coaching,'' or having teachers guide students as they learn by doing.

The third--and most widely adopted--column of the strategy calls for the use of Socratic seminars in the classroom. The aim of the seminars is to help students enlarge their understanding by reading classical texts or original documents, such as the Declaration of Independence, and discussing them with classmates.

'Stuck in Their Ways'

Mr. Adler would not call Githens a pure Paideia school. Students at the school are tracked for language-arts classes, and traditional grading systems are still used. But the school, unlike some other Paideia schools around the country, is working hard to put all three Paideia columns into practice.

Including Githens, according to the most recent survey, there are about 200 Paideia schools around the country. Many have adopted only parts of the proposal or offer a Paideia program only for high-achieving students.

Some of the best Paideia schools, according to Mr. Adler, are in Cincinnati, Chicago, California, Kentucky, Phoenix, and Chattanooga, Tenn.

In addition, the National Paideia Center was established at the University of North Carolina's school of education in 1988 to help guide such efforts. More recently, a group of Mr. Adler's former Paideia associates formed a second organization, known as the Paideia Group, to serve a similar function. Seminars in the Socratic method for teachers are also offered through the Paideia Institute of Hyde Park, based in Chicago.

"In a sense,'' Mr. Adler conceded in a recent interview, "I would say we've failed because we would have to have changed the very large number of schools to succeed.''

"But we've done a great deal of good work,'' he said. "I guess I was asking too much from the education establishment.''

Mr. Adler said schools of education, in particular, remain "stuck in their ways'' and fail to turn out teachers equipped to carry out his vision of schooling.

Perceived Elitism

Others educators, however, will acknowledge that some of the resistance to the movement also stems from a widespread perception that the proposal is elitist.

"You don't use a Greek word without conjuring misguided perceptions about elitism and Western civilization,'' said Dennis Gray, a member of the original Paideia group who now acts as a Paideia consultant to schools in San Diego.

Such perceptions also stem in part from the proposal's recommendation to eliminate vocational studies and in part from Mr. Adler's association with the effort. Mr. Adler has been an outspoken opponent of efforts to make school curricula more multicultural. He prefers that educators rely on traditional classics of Western literature.

"All this multicultural stuff is bunk,'' Mr. Adler reiterated in an interview. "All things in the realm of truth are transcultural.''

In practice, however, many Paideia schools use the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letters from a Birmingham Jail and the Autobiography of Malcolm X, along with works by other minority and non-Western authors, in their seminars.

Some educators also complain that the proposal offers no guidance on how to go about creating a Paideia school--a deliberate omission on the part of Mr. Adler. A philosopher and not an educator, Mr. Adler maintained it would be presumptuous of him to dictate how to create a Paideia school.

"He felt the manifesto ought to be highly focused and deliberately not complex,'' Mr. Sizer said. "Mortimer and I had long and heated discussions about this.''

Mr. Sizer's own "essential schools'' proposal for reforming secondary schools, which came later, incorporated many of the principles in the Paideia Proposal. His vision, however, also offered educators something more: a comprehensive view on how to organize the resources in a school to put those principles into practice.

And, where the Paideia movement has operated in fits and starts over the past decade, the Coalition of Essential Schools movement has grown steadily and has continued to attract the necessary funding to fuel its growth. At last count, Mr. Sizer said, roughly 500 schools were calling themselves members of the essential schools network.

Creating a Model

In an effort to revitalize the Paideia movement and to answer for educators the nagging question of "What to do on the Monday morning after you've read the book,'' the University of North Carolina school of education has sought to change its strategy for promoting the Paideia concept, said Robert Kanoy, the school's associate dean.

The school hired a new director for the center, Basan (Buzz) Nembirkow, the former principal of a successful Paideia school in Chattanooga. And, rather than scatter its efforts across a wide variety of schools nationwide, Mr. Nembirkow and officials at the education school decided, the center would help create a single Paideia school.

"We want to have a strong demonstration model that we can actually take and show to [educators] and let them feel it and touch it,'' Mr. Kanoy said.

At about the same time, Mr. Adler stepped back from the Paideia movement to concentrate on philosophy in his remaining years. Mr. Nembirkow said the center also deliberately distanced itself from Mr. Adler and the Institute for Philosophical Research, which Mr. Adler directs. Thus, the project was renamed "Paideia/Next Century'' to give it a forward-looking image.

"I listen to him [Mr. Adler], but I don't sit at his feet,'' Mr. Nembirkow said.

The Paideia Group, in contrast, which is also located in North Carolina, is more closely aligned with Mr. Adler, listing him as an honorary board member.

Mr. Nembirkow said Githens was chosen in part because it is like "thousands of other schools across the country.'' Located in an area bordering several universities and the Research Triangle area of high-technology firms, the school's students come primarily from middle-class families. Approximately 60 percent of the students are white and 35 percent are African-American.

A middle-level school was chosen, Mr. Nembirkow said, because "no one really knows what they want to do with 11-, 12-, and 13-year-olds.''

In high school, by contrast, the programs are dictated by college-admissions requirements, Mr. Nembirkow said. Elementary school teachers, he added, come out of education school with a firm orientation that sometimes runs counter to the Paideia philosophy.

A Slow Introduction

Mr. Nembirkow said Githens's metamorphosis will be a deliberately slow one. This year, 6th-grade teachers are using all three columns of the Paideia approach. By next school year, the principles will be incorporated schoolwide.

At this point in the process, however, the Socratic seminars are central to Githens's conversion. Every teacher in the school has participated in three- and five-day summer seminars on how to run the seminars. Center staff members also work with teachers and "coach'' them on an almost weekly basis as they begin to use seminars in their own classrooms.

The schoolwide seminars every Wednesday, known as the "Wednesday Revolution,'' are what Mr. Adler has called "the opening wedge to school reform''--a way to introduce some Paideia concepts quickly to a large number of students.

Nearly every adult in the building, including guidance counselors and arts teachers, participates in the sessions. The students, working in groups of about 16, discuss, for example, the Kennedy speech or other texts by the abolitionist and journalist Frederick Douglass or Lucy Stone, a Civil War-era advocate of women's rights.

Each group includes students from every grade and of differing academic abilities. Students receive no grades for participating in the seminars.

In addition, the center encourages teachers to use seminars in their day-to-day teaching. Some, like William Chesser, have made extensive use of them.

The subject of discussion on a recent visit to Mr. Chesser's 8th-grade language-arts class, for example, was Shakespeare's "Othello.''

"What makes a person easily manipulated?'' Mr. Chesser began the session. The responses ranged from a person's "willingness to trust'' to "stupidity.''

"Is it therefore a bad thing to trust?''

"You have to be trusting in order to have a relationship,'' one student volunteered.

"You have to be trusting, but you have to be able to make your own decisions,'' another said. "You have to be friends with someone for awhile before you can trust them.''

"Wasn't Othello friends with Iago for a long time?'' another student asked.

The conversation continued, weaving in and out of the text, as students tried to pin down the answers of their classmates or to make a point.

Not all of the seminars at Githens have been as successful as Mr. Chesser's. Students and teachers said some of their discussions have died out after 20 minutes. In others, students or inexperienced teachers digress from the text and begin to relate their personal experiences, turning the seminar into a "rap session.''

"You never really know what's going to happen in a seminar,'' said Douglas Ryan, who, as director of outreach and training at the national center, works closely with the teachers at Githens.

Choosing Texts

A key to making the classroom discussions fruitful, educators at Githens have found, is the text itself. At Githens, the material for the schoolwide seminars is chosen by a Paideia committee made up of teachers, students, and parents.

The committee has not focused on the kinds of classical Western texts Mr. Adler favors. Rather, over the course of the year, Githens students have discussed magazine articles about animal experimentation, children's rights, or young people and guns. Seminars have also been held on M.C. Escher prints and comparisons of the lyrics to "God Bless America'' and "This Land is Your Land.'' Students also watched a tape of President Clinton's inaugural speech and discussed it.

The intent of late, the educators said, has been to find topics that would pique students' interest.

"The issue now is how much should we pander to students and how much should we present challenging subject matter,'' said Ken James, a social-studies teacher at the school and a member of the Paideia committee.

Most of the teachers and other staff members at Githens said they are enthusiastic about the changes taking place at their school.

"This gives me an opportunity to be more collegial with teachers,'' said Jodi Petrusa, a guidance counselor at the school who also participates in the seminars.

"It also gives students responsibility for their own discussions,'' she said. "If your seminar is boring, then look to your neighbor on the left and the right and say, 'Do we want to spend this time being bored?' ''

The responses from students, however, have been more mixed.

"Sometimes, kids come in and kind of roll their eyes and say, 'Oh, no, it's seminar day,' '' Davishia said.

"I didn't like the idea of seminars at first,'' said one 7th grader, Morgan Mehler, "but now they've sort of grown on me.''

"The discussions and the topics got better,'' he added.

Parents, however, have been more enthusiastic. Mr. Ryan said nine parents even requested--and underwent--training in leading Socratic seminars. They will take over some of the Wednesday-morning seminars later this year so that teachers can be freed up to observe their colleagues or to get additional training.

Educators have also found that many of the students considered to be low achievers tend to excel in the Socratic discussions.

"Gifted kids have the toughest time,'' Mr. Nembirkow said, "because it's open-ended, and there's no right answer.''

The teachers at Githens have had an easier time implementing "coaching'' techniques in their classrooms because most were already familiar with those strategies.

"Most of the things you've heard about in the last 15 or 20 years of school reform--peer teaching, cooperative learning, computer-aided instruction--can be used to great effect in a coaching format,'' Mr. Ryan said.

Seeing Results

Whether the transformation of Githens is raising student achievement at the school is for now an unanswered question.

"I'm just excited the school has a focus,'' said Brandon Smith, the school's newly appointed principal. "We may not know what we're doing, but we're becoming a Paideia school.''

Mr. Smith said he was heartened to hear teachers at a recent faculty meeting get into a heated debate over how children learn.

"Most of the time you have staff meetings, and they never talk about teaching,'' he said. "They talk about parking or coffee machines.''

Elsewhere, however, a smattering of reports documents some benefits to the Paideia approach.

At the Chattanooga School for Arts and Sciences, a magnet school that has used the Paideia approach for six years, more than 90 percent of the students from two graduating classes studied went on to four-year colleges. The school reports no dropouts, and the school's average daily attendance--at 97 percent--is the highest in the district.

Improvements in pupils' writing and reasoning abilities have also been documented at four inner-city Chicago schools that used the Paideia approach.

"It takes about a year and a half for kids to get acclimated,'' said Robert D. Brazil, the principal of Roger Sullivan High School in Chicago, which is both a Paideia school and a member of the Coalition of Essential Schools network.

"But, if they come in at the 36th percentile on standardized-test scores,'' he said, "we can bring them up another 3 or 4 points.''

More important, however, some educators say, is the fact that some of the Paideia ideas have become part of the conventional wisdom on improving schools.

"The proposal was not the first to talk about learning through discussion or to say that understanding was more important than the right answer,'' said Ms. Ravitch, the education historian. "It was just a different way of putting it together and giving impetus to the idea that all kids can learn.''

"That's a powerful idea,'' she added.

Proponents of the concept add, however, that real change under their methods is slow.

"People have to start realizing this is not going to be a simple solution for a complex problem,'' Mr. Nembirkow said. "I'm prepared to wait it out.''

Vol. 12, Issue 21

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